Review: Thinking with Soils

Media of Thinking with Soils

Salazar, Juan Francisco, Céline Granjou, Matthew Kearnes, Anna Krzywoszynska, and Manuel Tironi, eds. Thinking With Soils: Material Politics and Social Theory Bloombury Academic. 2020. 256 pp. ISBN 9781350109599

Tad Brown (University of Queensland)

Terrestrial life on planet Earth is made possible by its soil infrastructure. The central argument of this collection, drawn together from two international conferences and five like-minded scholars, is that social theorists have ignored the soil underfoot, which too often appears as an inert backdrop to the real action. Given the ‘notable absence’ of soil in contemporary social theory, the organizing editors take the work of Maria Puig de la Bellacasa as inspiration, who authored a foreword to the volume. Thinking With Soils— a hardback with a nice weight, print size, and page margin—is a response to this ‘notable absence.’ The book provides the groundwork for making, or unmaking, soil as a subject of post-humanist inquiry. Thawing permafrost, colonizing worms, and chemical violence are a few of the examples that await its readers.

Apparently not everyone ignores soils. We learn that the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a Status of the World’s Soil Resources Report in 2015. Remote sensing and big data on global soil loss provides some truly depressing numbers. Yet the contributors to Thinking With Soils offer a valuable critique to conceptualizing soil on geochemical terms—or as a commodity to be bagged, sold, and relocated. After an introduction on material politics and the non-negotiable inertia of the Anthropocene, the cohort of editors give their collective perspective on soil theories. This chapter will be a ‘must read’ for scholars and future students whose interests coincide with the book. The editors’ sensibilities will be familiar to many readers. They refer to these as: ‘assembling soils,’ ‘the elemental ecologies of soil,’ ‘inhumanness,’ and ‘decolonizing soils.’ Taken together, the analysis builds on contemporary theory to signal how soil is generative of social configurations. Its overarching approach is a timely intervention into conversations about the climate crisis and the role of soil in things to come.

Soils are many things throughout the volume. To recall a few: soils are a new charismatic entity, a promissory site, a global object of governance, and a place-making praxis. In all of its varied treatments, the authors deem the dominant scientific view of soil as wanting in sociality. The refrain that ‘there is no soil outside the social’ is nevertheless complicated by the admission that life-giving soil preceded and enabled human society. (Perhaps this is why soil has been considered irrelevant to social theorists?) The authors appear in agreement that no amount of technoscientific discourse will remedy the Holocene ruins. The fact is, as demonstrated throughout the chapters, soil usually enters social scientific thought through a narrative link to planetary escape or apocalyptic dust clouds: The recognition of soil as something other than a superficial brown tableau follows from social anxiety about the continuation of life. One of my favorite discussions in the book is on the shared genealogy between modern soil science, ecosystem ecology, and Earth cybernetics, a discussion which occurs within a chapter on off-Earth farming and agricultural research at Wageningen University (Bertoni).

Each chapter in the volume presents a different case study with reference to soil. One is on the politics of soil mapping (King and Granjou), and another on polar futures (Salazar and Dodds); there is a reflection on the magic of mimicry in regenerative agriculture (Kearnes and Rickards), and a review of soil within the social relations of capitalism (Engel-Di Mauro and Van Sant). The anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has a chapter about closing the loop on biosolids, or land applying ‘late industrial excreta’. There is also an ethnographic account by Germain Meulemans about building soils at a brownfield site in Paris that would be good assigned reading for an undergraduate course. The organizing framework of the book suggests that caring for soil biota is a political provocation that requires humans to slow down and rethink the social world.

Perhaps one of the more ambitious chapters, in terms of offering theoretical interest to those who do not care so much about soil as a topic of study, is the agential insights on ‘Soil Refusal’. Multispecies theories of social engagement have relied on a relational affect that does not seem to apply to impenetrable soils: Certain soils refuse the human gesture towards connection and do not fit within the ethos of conviviality. Manuel Tironi tries to make sense of ‘lived experiences in which soil does not accept the biontological invitation to communion’(177). To Tironi, the theoretical implications are found in trying to get beyond relational frameworks in those encounters when things seem unrelatable. Anyone who has taken a blunt post-hole digger to the hardpan at high noon will relate.

Readers familiar with the scholarship in environmental history and the anthropology of food may find that the book exhibits a lack of thoroughness in approaching the relevant literature. In any given chapter, the authors might revisit Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift, or how nutrients from rural farmlands cycled through industrialized populations and replaced the closed-loop production systems of organic life with urban pollution. After that, the chapters jump to the political ecology by Piers Blaikie (1985) and then proceed with scholarship from the past ten years. This is not a dig against the book, as the subject matter is not historical. But it matters because the overall argument of the book—a need for the soiling of social theory and theorizing of soil media—is based on the novelty of its intersection. Other scholars are left to tie the theoretical language of the volume to a fuller intellectual history.

This leads to a question about the audience of Thinking With Soils. Adding soil to social theory—and amending the roster of society to include soil-borne organisms—is important for what it can say about personhood and how to live right by Earth. In this, the editors’ thinking aligns with Indigenous ontologies that do not separate nature and culture. Social scientists should learn to take soil seriously. Yet many academic fields already take soil seriously. What about ‘them’? For an edited volume that seeks to address human-soil relations, it is curious that only one chapter is coauthored by a natural scientist. Those who understand soil as degraded rock are left out in the rain, so to speak. This is likely an artefact of the conference origins, but as stated in the introduction of the volume, working through the implications of political economy on soil dynamics, and what can be done, will require embracing epistemic diversity. The much-needed discussions in this book should also be read by scholars trained in soil science, who may or may not agree with the essentializing logic ascribed to their discipline.

Anthropologists interested in food, medicine, and nutrition will enjoy the final chapter on the topic of geophagy. All flesh is grass, or as Lindsay Kelley argues, all food is dirt. Her work combines a reflection on contemporary art exhibits and cultural foodways to combat the pathologizing of eating dirt. There are some moving examples that appear in the chapter, especially about public dialogue through participatory food art. Here, the sensory engagement with soil delivers on the commitment to a material politics. One interesting theory mentioned in the chapter, attributed to Michael Rowland (2002), is that people adapted themselves to the consumption of poisonous plants by first eating clay and charcoal to coat the stomach and prepare the body for ingesting toxins. Given that there is a body of work on the Indigenous knowledge of soils that complements the themes of the volume (Pawluk et al 1992, Talawar & Rhoades 1998, Payton et al 2003), Kelley adds a key contribution.

Social theorists will undoubtedly continue to think with soils as the biota out-of-sight become implicated in the carbon counts ahead. This volume provides a leading example of how to go about collecting such thoughts.

Citations:

Blaikie, P., The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries (Harlow: Longman, 1985).

Pawluk, Roman R., Jonathan A. Sandor, and Joseph A. Tabor (1992), “The Role of Indigenous Soil Knowledge in Agricultural Development,” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 47(4): 298-302.

Payton, R.W. , J.J.F. Barr, A. Martin, P. Sillitoe, J.F. Deckers, J.W. Gowing, N. Hatibu, S.B. Naseem, M. Tenywa, and M.I. Zuberi (2003) “Contrasting Approaches to Integrating Indigenous Knowledge about Soils and Scientific Soil Survey in East Africa and Bangladesh,” Geoderma 111: 355-386.

Rowland, M. (2002), “Geophagy: An Assessment of Implications for the Development of Australian Indigenous Plant Processing Technologies,” Australian Aboriginal Studies 1: 50-65.

Talawar, Shankarappa and Robert E. Rhoades (1998), “Scientific and Local Classification and Management of Soils,” Agriculture and Human Values 15: 3-14.